From the first of time,
before the first of time, before the
first men tasted time, we thought of you.
You were a wonder to us, unattainable,
a longing past the reach of longing,
a light beyond our light, our lives—perhaps
a meaning to us…
Now our hands have touched you in your depth of night.
From “Voyage to the Moon” by Archibald MacLeish
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
From “The Second Coming” by W. B. Yeats
In 1969, one event lit the world like a noisy light: the day witnessed by just about all of mankind, when American astronaut Neil Armstrong, in the guise of a spaceman, stepped on the dusty and rocky moon, planted our flag, was man and mankind.
On July 21, in a series of blunt, remarkably direct and prosaic words, the front page of the New York Times proclaimed: “MEN WALK ON MOON/Astronauts Land on Plain; Collect Rocks, Plant Flag.” The actual landing by Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin was on July 20; Michael Collins remained in the orbiting command module.
“That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind,” declared Armstrong, making him and his fellow space travelers on the Eagle immortal, but still mortal.
The moon landing — not just American but everyone’s — was a signal and singular triumph, the apex of a year marked by turbulence of a kind not encountered before. It was a year that was significant for its proximity to the past and the future, and more specifically, to the year that preceded it.
If the moon landing lit up a light in our lives, revealing itself spectacularly after that orbiting body’s lifetime of demure revelation and disappearance in our tides and daily lives, it also reminded us that we stood in the presence of its dark side.
In that way, the year and our lives revealed itself to us and electrified us and crashed in on us like Yeats’s second coming, with the ever-widening gyre of our war in Vietnam, the protests, the revolutionary, often violent gatherings in opposition to that war, opening rifts in our political and cultural society. It seemed to whiplash our lives between triumph and tragedy, with a bitter yearning for the days of normalcy buffeted by new moral, sexual and cultural norms.
The landing was the climax of JFK’s better angel, overshadowing his flaws with his inspirational rhetoric of active aspiration, beginning with his admonition to: “Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”
The insistence, the ambition and the promise to go to the moon was a decisive ambition, seemingly impossible but emotionally given and embraced. “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade, and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills,” said Kennedy in 1962 at Rice University in Houston.
The speech echoed a youthful energy, a confidence that we could right wrongs and win hearts and minds everywhere we planted a flag of interest. One of those flags was in Vietnam, which by that summer of 1969 had come to be seen as an interminable struggle, deeply costly in American blood and resources.
In that context, while the moon landing was bracing like uncompromised electricity, the year itself was primarily the year where the consequences and the proximity of the previous year were emotionally, culturally and politically felt.
That dramatic, violent, earthquake year of 1968 shaped 1969. That year, the Kennedy family, the country and the world lost Robert F. Kennedy, his murder preceded by the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the hands of an assassin in Memphis. The country had suffered two enormous losses — of leaders who had the ability to imagine the world whole. That year, it became clear that Vietnam and all of its attendant sorrows was not just a war but a kind of state of mind.
Nineteen sixty-nine was a continuation of the previous year, accompanied by what might have been. Richard Nixon — in spite of a sometimes spiteful personality and an awkward lack of grace — had made a remarkable comeback. In his inaugural speech, he perhaps surprised many with his eloquence and even prescience, stating: “We have found ourselves rich in goods, but ragged in spirit; reaching with magnificent precision for the moon, but falling into raucous discord on earth.”
Generations passed us by that year: the last of Eisenhower’s life on earth, the last of Charles de Gaulle’s public life, the last song sung by Judy Garland. In Vietnam, it was the year of Hamburger Hill and My Lai.
The war ground on and discord rose with demonstrations ever more massive in size, including the ultimate uprising on Moratorium Day, Oct. 15, with half a million demonstrators across the street from the White House and folk legend Pete Seeger rallying the crowd with the new John Lennon song, “Give Peace a Chance” (as the Beatles were breaking up).
Those of us old enough to remember, remember. I was a young father living in Marin County, California, writing sports stories. My neighbors — if not literally, just a loud song away — included Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead and others.
Washington artist Sidney Lawrence was a 21-year-old student at UC Berkeley, in some ways the epicenter of California dreaming and contrasts, where tear gas sometimes wafted in the air. On May 15, Gov. Ronald Reagan ordered 2,700 National Guard troops to quell growing protests and shut down People’s Park. “Military trucks lined the streets and U.S. soldiers wielded guns and as many as 4,000 people fought back,” according to Lawrence, who recalled going to a class on Baroque art, only to find the building surrounded by the military.
It was the year of bell bottoms and Afros and long-haired hippie girls and boys. And it was the year of the Woodstock and Altamont festivals, the climax of the sunny and dark sides of a kind of uncontrolled hedonism of sex, drugs and rock and roll.
The ethereal Joni Mitchell, who was not there, caught the spirit of Woodstock: “We are stardust, we are golden.” It was there that Jimi Hendrix tortured “The Star-Spangled Banner” into an electric guitar pretzel and Richie Havens opened it up by crowding more feelings into the hundred-times-over repetition of “Freedom.”
A different spirit prevailed at Altamont in the East Bay, where the Rolling Stones reigned, singing “Gimme Shelter,” as in “War, children, it’s just a shot away.” (That year, if the Beatles sang “Let It Be,” the Stones sang “Let It Bleed.”) Hell’s Angels acted as security guards, beating up a naked man, and there were four deaths: three accidental and one a stabbing.
It was the year of the Manson massacre, an excess hard to remember and harder to forget, with “Helter Skelter” blood on the wall, the murder of pregnant actress Sharon Tate and four others. The Rasputin-like, California-made monster Charles Manson died in prison not so long ago.
Still, I remember interviewing an old man a few years later on his 100th birthday. He was thinking back to a day in 1900 when he and others were joking about the idea of a man on the moon.
He smiled at me and said, “I seen that, though, didn’t I?”
Yes, you did.
Yes, we did.